The ball is round, the pitch is… Hexagonal?! — A look at the question: has coaching continued to evolve alongside football?

In a Ted Talk given in back in Maastricht, NL. 2014. Called: Why the majority is always wrong — In relation to high performance in sport. Author and high-performance expert Paul Rulkens recalled a story regarding Doctor Albert Einstein during his time teaching at Oxford University circa the 1940's.

Einstein had just given a test to his senior class, to which his assistant asked him:

Professor Einstein, the exam you just gave to the senior class of physics students. Isn’t this exactly the same exam you gave to the exact same class one year ago?

It is indeed” the Professor confirmed, “it’s exactly the same”. His assistant puzzled by this queried how he could possibly do such a thing. “Well” Einstein replied, “That’s because the answers have changed!

It’s a concept that can be applied to quite a few disciplines apart from just physics. Of which football can of course be included.

While truth be told coverage of the game itself has to be fair focused on the evolution of such for some time now, this has typically been in respect to stylistic preferences. Albeit regardless of this and the choosing of vernacular, the overwhelming consensus is still that the game has changed, with many quantifiable examples banded around constantly to support this.

However, what isn’t questioned in the same vein is: Has the coaching paradigm changed as notably? Einsten famously also said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

To some this may seem contradictory to the original tale. But the kaleidoscopic nature of the game means that while the (broad) questions asked of the team remain consistent, the answers needed to achieve them are continually influx.

So when to this day we still see a lot of coaching practice inanely recycled, often without tangible thought behind the ‘Why?’ and ‘What For?’. To me it seems a reasonable deliberation to make: Is coaching actually evolving alongside the game?

What was yesterday ‘ideal’ against the routine, tomorrow in turn will be a routine against another ideal” — José Ingenieros.

Dribbling around cones, speed ladders, the now infamous laps around the pitch or ‘suicide runs’. All staples of the old-fashioned coaching manual, and in point of fact potentially serve(d?!) a purpose at some juncture of the coaching journey.

Yet whereas incessant debate can often be found in the Twitter-sphere and alike in terms of Opposed versus Unopposed practice, etc. The real question should be do (some) coaches truly appreciate what it is they hope to engender through their methods? Or are they simply using received wisdom as a standard of conduct which may no longer resemble the true requirements of the team.

From an ideological perspective Thomas Tuchel’s discourse in the above video, and subsequent added insert using the hexagonal pitch initially when at Borussia Dortmund. For one provides a radically eye-catching and clear example of a firm challenge to what could be seen as something of a ‘Functional Fixedness’ around the coaching process, and moreover the resources utilised.

In the past the methodological aspect of the coaching doctrine was for all intents and purposes heavily centred on a transaction-based model. Nowadays though the various changes not just in the game, but society as a whole, dictate it be arguably seen as a far more transformational skill-set.

Simply telling someone what to do and how, does not usually elicit the exact desired response (consistently). Particularly in an ‘Open Skill Sport’ such as football, which can be viewed as geared more towards using the ‘Working Memory’. The argument could well be that the value of this type of practice potentially has even bigger limitations.

Therefore, surely as Tuchel suggests coaching should continue to move away from the belief that the core objective of practice is simply instruction, correction + repetition of technical actions, at times for repetitions sake (be they game based or not). To instead further understand that the in actual fact the pedagogical goal of football training is surely heavily weighted towards adaption.

An adaptation to different contexts, environments, and to a diverse set of interactions — A plethora of footballing emergent properties if you will, all housed within the ‘Complex system’ that is the sport itself.

In this sense the current PSG boss and his far from revolutionary implementation of ‘Modified Rules that underpin his training module. But perhaps more importantly the utilisation of modified *resources*, are a welcome way of provoking behaviours by trying to stimulate the cognitive muscles first.

Seeking new behaviours from similarly creative environments, rather than adhering to the status quo purely as this satisfies our conscience/the watching public.

Mikel Arteta (1:34 in) on the benefits of the positions that are taken up in a hexagonal pitch.

Practically speaking though, it’s also important to remember that as alluded previously it is just as key to comprehend from a tactical basis, what type of conduct and the ‘Why’ behind what it is you are trying to foment through each exercise, and session as whole.

In this scenario Mikel Arteta’s above video supplies a useful, illustrative grounding as to this, in terms of the potential functionality of virtually the same shape inside the way a team wishes to play.

Ergo whereas Tuchel in his own words designed his hexagon in mind with encouraging: “Sharp diagonal balls”, theoretically from deep and probably to his far side wide players — A fantastic tool in beating the common modern-day press. Arteta instead initially prefers to focus on the limitation of how a straight ball down the line typically does not allow players to receive the ball facing forward, and/or create superiority inside. This meaning their positioning would be key.

Indeed the latter is supported by the fact that throughout Pep Guardiola and assistant Arteta’s time at Manchester City, it has been common to see in stages of the buildup the wingers float a great deal of the game towards the central midfielders. So as to then be able take the ball in their stride with the goal in front of them (+ provide the possibility for the overload on the outside).

This can be highlighted none more so emphatically than in David Silva’s goal against Arsenal at the Emirates last season, and the role of Leroy Sané upon it.

The position of Leroy Sané in the buildup to the goal. Key to his eventual involvement.

The German winger’s position starting to wander inside, and subsequent movement to be able to collect the ball facing forward without having to turn with it (which would slow down the game), playing an absolutely vital function to David Silva eventually finding the back of the net.

As seen in full plus through various angles below:

This is of course not to say that both trainers tactical concepts aren’t intrinsically linked, as they unquestionable are. Albeit the two explanations provided by them effectively represent how the same drill, can be used to engage differing strategies to the players, IE:

  • Tuchel’s: Sharp diagonal balls to arrive from back to front quicker/more aggressively.

[Or]

  • Arteta’s: Create superiority inside + be able to receive the ball facing up the goal.

These subtle differences re-emphasising the importance of having a clear idea of what behaviours you are looking to cultivate through your sessions. As well as the ‘How’ you wish to reach them.

At the end of the day it’s my belief a coach, much like a player when on the pitch, is in essence tasked with perceiving, analysing and identifying solutions. Said ‘trifecta’ should then underpin their voyage towards an objective of enhancing the individual and collective capabilities of a team.

In an article published in the excellent trainingground.guru.com, RB Leipzig’s Fitness Trainer Nicklas Dietrich asserted:

We are not performance maximisers, but performance optimisers. Football is a competitive sport, not a training sport. Since we prepare ourselves only briefly and have another game, games are the best exercise.

A sprinter drives a single ability to its maximum, but footballers need many skills. You have to have endurance, co-ordination, be mentally strong.”

A powerful statement, which is important to consider alongside that the non-linear essence of the footballing journey means it needn’t take a genius… Or you don’t even have to be Albert Einstein! To understand that to learn and progress in different football environments, you will be better placed to do so not via senseless regurgitation. But instead through a great deal of varied, creative work.

“I’ve finally accepted myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand’s outstretched… & when it happens, I give thanks for it!”